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    St. Paul Island Community Members Take Flight!

    Perhaps one of the greatest joys when flying to St. Paul is the approach to the island. The descent through the clouds to find a bird’s-eye-view of the island is breathtaking, especially in the summer time when the tundra has greened up and the wildflowers are blooming and the Bering Sea is crashing along the shorelines. It makes me wish I had my own wings to fly.

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    Taking flight. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    While we might not have our own wings, we do have various tools that allow us to explore the world from above and gain new perspectives. We have planes, gliders, and helicopters. We can skydive, jumping headfirst into nothingness and stealing moments in the air as a bird might until our parachutes float us safely once again to solid ground.

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    We began each day with ‘droga’- mimicking the movements of the drone in flight to practice flight maneuver terms. Here human drones “going hot” and ready to take flight. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

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    One flight team takes flight in the school gym as they learn how to fly Alias drones as hobbyists. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    But even if we need to keep our feet firmly planted on the earth, we have drones, or small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), to see things from new heights. These aircraft operate without a human pilot onboard. Instead they are controlled by a remote operator who remains on the ground. Although you might instinctively think “military” when you hear the word drone, these tiny unmanned machines capable of flight can do so much more, including flying them for adventure as a hobbyist!

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    The first type of sUAS we learned how to use, the Alias (top) and practicing how to fly the Alias (bottom). Photo credit: Veronica Padula (top) and Quin Fitzpatrick (bottom)

    Yes, it is super fun to fly sUAS, but the wonderful thing about getting your Part 107 pilot’s license is that it opens many opportunities and career possibilities. That is because with your Part 107, or remote pilot certification, you can fly commercially. You can take incredible aerial photos and videos (cinematography), especially of all the gorgeous landscapes on St. Paul Island, then those photos or videos can be used on websites, in promotional media, or sold. Beyond taking pictures and video, commercial sUAS pilots are increasingly used for surveying buildings, roads, and land parcels. The use of sUAS is especially helpful in projects that endanger human lives, such as fine scale inspections of tall towers and equipment.

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    Learning how to use and rebuild the Alias drone. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

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    Practicing flight control and depth perception by getting the Alias through the hoop. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    sUAS technology improves rapidly, and folks come up with new uses for sUAS all the time. Just ask Tyler, Quin, and Nick, our instructors from Alaska Aerial Education. On our first day of class Tyler asked us why we were taking the drone class, prefacing his question by saying that although he knows of many uses for sUAS, he hears new ideas for their use all the time.

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    Nick and Quin exploring St. Paul Island. Photo credit: Tyler Currier

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    Nick coaching Lauren on flying the Alias during the first days of class. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    The St. Paul students had some new ideas for him as well. It was a rather impressive list. sUAS could assist during search and rescue efforts, could map marine debris along shorelines that are hard to reach on foot, help identify culturally important sites, track the reindeer herd for management purposes, provide wifi hotspots in out-of-service areas during emergencies, survey vegetation around the island, perhaps even track harmful algal blooms using infrared cameras.

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    St. Paul School as seen from above. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    UAS has been used for all sorts of scientific research in other parts of the world, particularly wildlife research. Biologists are still addressing the challenges and complexities of mixing wildlife and sUAS. For example, sometimes bears’ heart rates go up when they see drones. However, sUAS can also protect endangered species from poachers, such as across broad stretches of Africa. You can check out projects happening in other parts of North America, including the Unmanned Vehicles for Improved Ecology and Wildlife Science (UVIEWS) project.

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    sUAS technology will be a huge help in monitoring St. Paul Island’s reindeer herd. Here the drone captured a portion of the herd comprised mainly of male reindeer. Photo credit: Quin Fitzpatrick

    With some strategic and creative planning, the sky is the limit for sUAS use. Well, actually the limit when flying is 400 feet above ground level – just one of the many things we learned during class. Turns out flying an unmanned aircraft for commercial use with your Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate takes a bit more effort than hobbyist sUAS flight. There are lots of rules and guidelines set out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and pilots certified for Part 107 must abide by them.

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    St. Paul students practiced taking pictures with the sUAS during the class. Here is a view of town from above. Photo credit: Aaron Lestenkof

    There are many concepts pilots must understand in order to fly safely, such as understanding how airspace is classified, how to read airspace rules using maps called chart sectionals, how to recognize safe flying conditions and understand weather reports such as METARs, TAFs and SIGMETs, especially in places like St. Paul where weather can change very quickly, and how the pilot-in-command and visual observer work as a team for safe flight.


    Airspace Chart

    Thanks to our intrepid and tireless instructors, students learned all these rules and concepts and much more. And I really mean tireless- our instructors worked day and night to fit 6 months of learning material into 2 weeks of instruction. Conversely, our students also worked day and night to fit 6 months of learning material into their brains. Many concepts were complicated and took some time to understand. But everyone hung in there, and helped each other to understand it. We also got lots of flying time in, which was always the reward for working so hard to understand such complex material.

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    Tyler showing one flying team how to fly the Phantom 4, the next step up from the Alias sUAS. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    By the end of the 2 weeks, our brains may have been fried, but everyone is well on their way to tackling the Part 107 certification exam, and acing it! Stay tuned for when the Part 107 test is scheduled – St. Paul Island will have some very talented sUAS pilots at work very soon!

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    Tyler showing the class how to fly the Inspire 1, the most commonly used aircraft for commercial purposes. Photo credit: Veronica Padula

    Students Prepare for Summer 2017 Seabird Camp with Welcome Posters

    May 19, 2017 by Seabird Youth Network

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    Summer is approaching, and school is almost out for the summer vacation.  Students on both the Commander Islands and the Pribilofs are getting excited for summer activities.

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    4th graders on St. Paul Island have been busy making posters to hang up at school to tell people about Seabird Camp, and to share the news that we’ll be hosting students from the Commander Islands.

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    We’re excited to welcome three students and their chaperone from Bering Island (the largest of the Commander Islands) to camp this year.

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    Find out more about Seabird Youth Network Seabird camp here.

    St. Paul Marine Debris Cleanup

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    Community members removed over 21,000 lbs of  debris from St. Paul Island’s shorelines at the beginning of May! Read about the efforts here.

    Mass mortality of tufted puffins linked to unusual warm temperatures

    TUPU_21Oct16On 17 October 2016, Paul Melovidov and Aaron Lestenkof, biologists from the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government Ecosystem Conservation Office (ACSPI ECO), Pribilof Islands, Alaska (see map) counted 39 fresh, mostly intact beached birds along North Beach (see photo). Since this date, daily surveys have tallied 247 beached birds on 4 separate beaches on the north and east sides of the island. Almost all of the birds found to date have been Tufted Puffins (217), with much smaller numbers of Horned Puffins and murres. Previous years’ data from both St. Paul and St. George (see graphs) indicate that Tufted Puffins have been a very small minority of the species washing ashore (see graph). In over 10 years (2006 to 2015) and 306 surveys, only 6 puffins (3 Horned, 1 Tufted, 2 unidentified to species) have ever been found. The current encounter rate (carcasses/kilometer) for Tufted Puffins is over 350-2,500 times the normal rate (range dependent on use of cumulative average versus maximum survey count). During regular COASST surveys of Pribilof Island beaches, only 22% of birds have been found completely iPatricia Johnntact, indicating most fall victim to a combination of predation and scavenging. In the ongoing mass mortality event, 84% of birds found have been intact (see photo), indicating these birds did not die from predation, and that they have beached very recently such that biologists found them before scavenging foxes attacked/removed the carcasses. Population size of puffins breeding in the Pribilof Islands is in the thousands based on USFWS surveys: 6,000 for Tufted Puffins and over 30,000 for Horned Puffins (Beringian Seabird Colony Catalog 2005). If the current Tufted Puffin carcass count was 10% of total mortality (a high estimate given the small length of beach available on the island in an otherwise open ocean), total estimated mortality would amount to one-third of the local nesting population.

    The cause of this mortality was overwhelmingly severe starvation. Birds were emaciated with complete muscle atrohpy and gastrointestinal bleeding indicative of prolonged starvation. Birds were negative for avian cholera, and ECO awaits the results from other contaminants/ disease testing.

    Species Breakdown COASSTMap of COASST beaches Puffin Dieoff

    For more information, we suggest the following resources:

    https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/wildlife/2016/11/14/large-die-off-of-tufted-puffins-in-pribilofs-seems-linked-to-warm-conditions/

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/11/tufted-puffins-die-off-bering-sea-alaska-starvation-warm-water-climate-change/

    https://www.leonetwork.org/en/posts/preview/2DD546AB-DE8A-4CFB-BD2E-A5DCBE06F8EA

    Radiation testing for northern fur seals

    In summer 2014, NOAA Fisheries in partnership with ColoradoState University NFS radiation page 1collected tissue from northern fur seals harvested from St. Paul Island for lab testing of the radiation levels. They also field-tested marine debris that might have come from Japan.

    “The amount of radiation you are exposed to as a result of eating fur seals from the area is very, very small compared to the amount of radiation you are exposed to naturally from the sun or x-rays for health diagnosis. You won’t be hurt or experience negative consequences as a result of this small amount of radiation exposure. Additionally, the amounts of radioactive material found within the seal tissues are not enough to cause negative consequences for the seals themselves. At these levels the radiation poses no risk to human health from consumption of northern fur seals by Alaska Natives.”

    Contact one of the St. Paul Island Sentinels for more information or to obtain a copy of the press release or journal article.NFS radiation page 2

    See a PDF version of the press release here:

    Pribilof NFS testing Fact Sheet Finalupdate 2015

    BeringWatch observations contribute valuable information to 2015 large whale unusual mortality event

    Dead Gray Whale

    Dead gray whale filmed by King Cove fisherman Daniel Mack near Pankoff and East Anchor on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula.

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    Dead juvenile female humpback whale sighted by Darien Uttecht from the F/V Northern Star outside of Dolgoi Island.

    On June 10, 2015 Dakota Walker, the BeringWatch Sentinel Program coordinator for the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove, Alaska received a report from fisherman Daniel Mack that he had seen a dead whale located near Pankoff and East Anchor on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula. Mack, a crew member of the F/V Echo was participating in a project designed to conduct community based ecological monitoring by fishermen in the King Cove/Aleutian Region funded by the North Pacific Research Board. The video and screen captures taken by the crew of the F/V Echo were forwarded to BeringWatch collaborator Kate Wynne of the Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program for identification and confirmation. The carcass was identified as a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and a Level A Marine Mammal stranding Form was filled out to report the sighting to the National Marine Fisheries (NMFS) Marine Mammal Stranding Program. The observation was immediately added to a growing number of dead whale sightings that had recently been designated as the 2015 Gulf of Alaska Large Whale Unusual Mortality Event or UME. A UME is defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response. Wynne and the NOAA researchers  emphasized the extreme importance of information from the members of the public such as BeringWatch Citizen Sentinels. During a UME it is especially important to have quick reporting when dead or distressed whales are spotted so that researchers can get to the animals, document them and, if possible collect samples either at sea or on the beach if the whales strand. Over the course of the summer four more dead whale sightings were reported to the Agdaagux Tribe by fishermen participating in the BeringWatch Citizen Sentinel program. These included two sightings of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) which were confirmed and added to the list of dead whales in the UME.

    From May to mid-August 30 large whales were reported including 11 fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), 14 humpback whales, 1 gray whale and 4 other unidentified large cetaceans. Additional reports of dead whales also occurred off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Scientists in the United States and Canada have yet to determine the cause of the 2015 large whale UME, however the investigation is ongoing. Unfortunately many of the whales were floating at sea or in an advanced stage of decomposition. Scientists were only able to obtain samples from one dead whale in Alaskan waters. Because all of the dead whales were species that feed by filtering water through plates of baleen in their jaws, one possible cause under investigation is that the whales may have ingested biotoxins present in harmful algal blooms such as red tides. Since the mid-1990s, UMEs associated with biotoxins from harmful algal blooms have become more common, the majority of which have been attributed to toxicity from domoic acid or brevetoxin. Toxic algal blooms can be caused by unusually warm ocean conditions, such as those observed in the eastern North Pacific since 2013 in conjunction with a sea surface temperature anomaly that has been nicknamed “the blob.” The unusually warm ocean conditions linked to the blob can have a variety of impacts on the marine ecosystem and have also been implicated in the 2013 California sea lion UME and increased strandings of Guadalupe fur seals.

    The unusual  events occurring in the marine ecosystem in recent years highlight the importance of sightings documented by projects such as the BeringWatch Citizen Sentinel Program. With effective monitoring tools and training, local community members can provide reliable and important environmental information, especially on threatened or endangered species and unusual observations in the local environment.

    Seabird die-offs in Alaska: Should we be concerned?

    Some of the largest and most diverse seabird populations in the world are found in Alaskan waters. Seabirds are good indicators of ecosystem health in many ways including fish abundance, chemical contamination, particulate pollution, and general oceanic conditions. So the recent increased number of seabird deaths in Homer, the Alaska Peninsula and the eastern edge of the Aleutians Islands, and the massive die-off of common murres (Uria algae) in Kodiak are not good news.Auklets

    Although seabirds can die due to a number of avian diseases, massive mortality is rare in Alaska. In fact, the first large seabird die-off caused by avian cholera outbreak was reported at St. Lawrence Island in 2013. Avian diseases are generally not harmful to humans. That said, if you find a dead seabird on the beach do not touch it without gloves, and if you do, wash your hands thoroughly. Like most animals including humans, seabirds are more prone to disease when they are stressed or in poor body condition. So deaths can often be caused by a combination of a disease and whatever else may be causing the stress such as poor diet, bad weather, human disturbance, or all of the above (Goutte et al. 2010).

    Scientists puzzle whether seabird die-offs are related to the algae blooms that are associated with warming ocean temperatures. A large bloom of toxic algae that produced a neurotoxin called domoic acid, which can be fatal to humans, occurred from California to British Columbia in June 2015. Blooms of toxic algae can have an array of seabird responses ranging from reduced feeding activity, inability to lay eggs, loss of motor coordination, and death (Shumway et al. 2003). Non-toxic algae blooms can also cause massive seabird die-offs such as that reported in Washington in 2007 by reducing the waterproof qualities of the feathers.

    Perhaps the most likely cause of die-offs is simply not enough food. The murre carcasses from Kodiak were emaciated, indicating birds died of poor nutrition possibly caused from starvation, diseases, or both. Bill Sydeman (Farallon Institute), proposed that seabird die-offs in Alaska and the unprecedented die-off of Cassin’s auklets in Washington were possibly a consequence of a massive ‘blob’ of warm water that formed in the North Pacific in late 2014. Changes in ocean temperatures can alter the environment of the zooplankton many fish and birds feed on, and favor algae blooms instead. Although Alaskan seabirds are able to cope to a certain degree by shifting diets (Renner et al. 2012), they may not cope with extreme or prolonged poor conditions. It is not difficult to imagine the effect of global warming on Alaskan food webs. In fact, a 2% annual decline of Alaskan seabird populations possibly mediated by food shortages coincides with an increase in ocean temperatures over the last 30–40 years.

    Why we should care about seabirds?
    Because like us, seabirds play an important role in a functioning ecosystem, and almost certainly whatever has caused the seabird deaths will in some form affect us sooner or later.

    What can we do?COASST
    First, reporting what you see is very useful for helping to determine the causes of seabird mortality. Many communities including St. Paul, report dead seabirds to the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) program where the data helps to answer what caused the die-offs. Second, acting to help reduce global warming is something we all can do at home. Every little bit helps. Finally, learning about the environment around you is one of the best ways to notice change. The Seabird Youth Network is doing a great job of this in the Pribilof Islands. Check out this video created by St. Paul youth on the least auklet.

     

    References

    Buchanan KL (2000) Stress and the evolution of condition dependent signals. Trends Ecol Evol 15: 157–160

    Goutte A, Angelier F, Welcker J, Moe B and others (2010) Long-term survival effect of corticosterone manipulation in black-legged kittiwakes. Gen Com Endocrinol 167:246−251

    Renner HM, Mueter F, Drummond B, Warzybok J, Sinclair EH (2012) Patterns of change in diets of two piscivorous seabird species during 35 years in the Pribilof Islands. Deep-Sea Res II 65−70: 273−291

    The killer whales are back!

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    Photo by Barbara Lestenkof, St. Paul Island.

    Recent sightings of killer whales posted by community members are the latest in a long history of observations around the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands. So, what do we know about them?

    Killer whales (Orcinus Orca), often referred to as Orca, are apex predators that roam all the world’s oceans. Although arguably the most famous killer whales are those in the south Atlantic that beach themselves while hunting sea lions on the Patagonian shores, not all killer whales are mammal-eaters. In the north Pacific, they are divided in three classes or “ecotypes”: residents, transients, and offshores. Residents specialize in salmon, especially chinook or king salmon, and are predictably found along the coastlines from Alaska to California. Transients eat marine mammals, ranging from harbor seals to gray whales, and overlap with Residents but are much less predictable in their movements. Less is known about the Offshore ecotype. They are found in large groups out along the continental shelf break and appear to largely specialize on eating sharks.

    Could killer whales be at least partially responsible for sea lion and fur seal declines? Among other things, this depends on the killer whale population size in the area which is a very difficult number to estimate given how widely dispersed they are. The minimum population estimate of transient killer whales in the Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea is 2,084 individuals based on the count of individuals using photo-identification (Allen and Anglis 2014). Springer and colleagues (2003) proposed that following a drastic reduction of gray whale numbers due to the whaling industry, transient killer whales have been switching from one marine mammal prey type to another as their populations bottom out; first Steller Sea lions, then harbor seals, then sea otters, and finally now northern fur seals. However, many other researchers do not agree with this interpretation of the data (e.g. DeMaster et al. 2006, Wade et al. 2007). Seabirds have also been declining in the Bering Sea at the same time (Byrd et al. 2008) which is not likely to have been caused by killer whales. The best evidence suggests the seabird decline may be due to less food availability, possibly a consequence of warmer ocean temperatures that occur in cycles over decades. Warming ocean temperatures point to other ecological or human-caused factors that may be the main cause of fur seal and sea lion declines in the Bering. Killer whales may be merely exacerbating a larger problem by hindering the recovery of these marine mammal populations.

    Why should we be concerned about changes in a top predator population? In short, because knowing the causes of change can help us to understand, predict and react to environmental changes that directly affect us. Changes from the top down or the bottom up of a well-connected ecosystem like the Bering Sea can lead to all sorts of unpredictable results as is occurring now with climate change. For example, the increase in global temperatures may affect the distribution of killer whales, allowing them to move further north into the Arctic. In the eastern Canadian Arctic this has already begun and killer whales are going after narwhals that used to be able to seek refuge in the sea ice. For now, however, it seems the Bering Sea killer whales are happy to feed in the Bering Sea without going anywhere else!

    There is a lot that community members can do to help solve this puzzle – from documenting

    Local children on St. George Island, Alaska look for killer whales and other marine mammals.

    Local children on St. George Island, Alaska look for killer whales and other marine mammals.

    killer whale predation incidents by pictures or videos and posting the areas and number of individuals we encounter at sea. For example, in 2006 and 2008 the St. Paul ECO and the St. George Island Institute used a community-based approach to study killer whales that included a logbook program in the local halibut fishery, collection of local and traditional knowledge, and shore-based visual surveys. See the results in the library of the Beringwatch.net webpage.
    Individual killer whales are relatively easy to identify if you happen to have binoculars with you. Look for their individually distinctive “saddle patches”, the white marks on the back behind the big dorsal fin or other marks such as notches in their dorsal fins (see picture above). You may be able to know whether the killer whale you see is the same you have seen in the last week, month or year! These observations are very valuable so please take photos and pass them on to your local Sentinels!

    Allen, B. M., and R. P. Angliss. 2014. Alaska marine mammal stock assessments, 2013. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-AFSC-277, 294 p. Available at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/sars/pdf/ak2013_final.pdf.

    Byrd, G.V., Schmutz, J. A. and Renner, H. M. 2008b. Contrasting population trends of piscivorous seabirds in the Pribilof Islands: a 30 year perspective. Deep-Sea Res. II.55:1846-1855.

    DeMaster D.P., Trites A.W., Clapham P., Mizroch S., Wade P., Small R.J. & Hoef J.V. (2006). The sequential megafaunal collapse hypothesis: Testing with existing data. Progress in Oceanography, 68, 329-342.

    Springer A.M. 2003 Sequential megafaunal collapse in the North Pacific Ocean: an ongoing legacy of industrial whaling?. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA. 100, 12 223–12 228. doi:10.1073/pnas.1635156100.

    Wade P., Barrett-Lennard L., Black N., Brownell R.L.J., Burkanov V., Burdin A., Calambokidis J., Cerchio S., Dahlheim M., Ford J., Friday N., Fritz L., Jacobsen J., Loughlin T., Lowry M., Matkin C., Matkin D., Mehta A., Mizroch S., Muto M., Rice D., Siniff D., Small R., Steiger G., Straley J., Van Blaricom G. & Clapham P. (2007). Marine mammal abundance, biomass, and trends in the eastern North Pacific – a reanalysis of evidence for sequential megafauna collapse. Maine Mammal Science, 23, 766-802.

    Sleeper Shark

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    Pacific sleeper shark recently captured by John W. Melovidov and Charles Stepetin on Sept. 3, 2015 near St. Paul Island.

    The Pacific sleeper shark (Somniosus pacificus) recently captured and posted by John W. Melovidov and Charles Stepetin on Sept. 3, 2015 near St. Paul Island is the most abundantly caught shark in the Bering Sea surveys. Two additional sharks that are abundant in Alaskan waters are spiny dogfish (Squalus suckleyi) and salmon shark (Lamna ditropis). Although there is no current directed fishing for these species, they are often caught incidentally. Little is known about these sharks’ life histories in Alaska, but research on their ages, natural mortality, movements, diets, and maturity is ongoing. (See http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/ABL/MESA/mesa_sa_sharks.php).

    Details of the sleeper shark’s range and population status are somewhat sketchy but they can be found as far north as the Arctic Circle in the Chukchi Sea, off the Asian and Russian coasts to the west, and as far south as California. Whether they are moving north with increasing temperatures is unknown. They are commonly called mud sharks because they are found at the bottom of the ocean, up to 6500 feet (2000 m) deep! They are known to largely feed on bottom dwelling prey such as arrowtooth flounder and giant octopus. Their large eyes suggest the ability to effectively collect light in the deep dark abyss. Their large snout nose is thought to serve as an effective means of following the chemical trails (smell) of decomposing flesh on the bottom of the ocean. Sleeper sharks can also glide through the water with very little body movement and minimal noise, and often appear to be continuously changing depths at incredible rates (6 km/day; Hulbert et. al., 2006).

    Their ability to capture fast-swimming prey such as salmon, squid and tuna, combined with their abundance in areas around pinniped breeding colonies, has led some scientists to hypothesize that they may have played a role in the population decline of Steller sea lions. There is indirect evidence of these sharks eating Steller sea lions; a temperature sensor on a Steller sea lion that began recording the low temperatures expected in a sleeper shark’s stomach after the sea lion was presumably preyed upon (Horning et al. 2013). Tracking and diet studies have not supported this idea but have confirmed that sleeper sharks could forage on other marine mammals such as harbor seals (Sigler et al. 2006). This is not hard to believe given their excellent swimming abilities combined with their large size, commonly reaching 14 feet (4 m) and sometimes as large as 23 feet (7 m) in length. All of these traits appear to have made them very successful predators.

    Sleeper sharks do not have a history of being harmful to humans. Their sluggish and quiet behavior in boats when captured makes it hard to believe they are closely related to the aggressive Greenland shark. That said, keeping hands away from their small mouth, which is designed for suction and for cutting meat, would be a good rule of thumb! Fishermen could provide important information to understand more about these animals by taking and posting photos (and letting us know!) when they are incidentally caught.

    Horning, M. and J. E. Mellish. 2013. In cold blood: evidence of Pacific sleeper shark (Somniosus pacificus) predation on Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) in the Gulf of Alaska. Fish. Bull. 112:297–310.

    Hulbert, L. B., M. F. Sigler, and C. R. Lunsford. 2006. Depth and movement behavior of the Pacific sleeper shark in the north-east Pacific Ocean. J. Fish Biol. 69:406–425.

    Sigler, M. F., L. B. Hulbert, C. R. Lunsford, N. H. Thompson, K. Burek, G. O’Corry-Crowe, and A. C. Hirons. 2006. Diet of Pacific sleeper shark, a potential Steller sea lion predator, in the north-east Pacific Ocean. J. Fish Biol. 69:392–405.

    Ribbon Seals hauling out on Beringwatch

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    Ribbon seal photographed by Akutan Sentinel Mike Witsoe on August 14 and 15 at Surf Beach on Akun Island.

    Island Sentinels in the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands have recorded two recent sightings of ribbon seals (Iglagayan in Unangam Tunuu or Aleut) in the Beringwatch database. Akutan Sentinel Mike Witsoe on August 14 and 15 recorded the first sightings at Surf Beach on Akun Island. A few days later, on August 20, St. Paul Sentinel Paul Melovidov observed a ribbon seal resting on the sand bar at the southern end of the Salt Lagoon. The last recorded observation in the Beringwatch database on St. Paul Island was on September 21, 2014 when Esther Baldwin videotaped a ribbon seal on North Beach (link to video). Going way back in time and local knowledge, John W. Melovidov spotted a ribbon seal in September 1988 between the two west landing docks. If anyone has any more observations of ribbon seals please let us know!

    Ribbon seal observed on August 20 by St. Paul Sentinel Paul Melovidov on the sand bar at the southern end of the Salt Lagoon.

    Ribbon seal observed on August 20 by St. Paul Sentinel Paul Melovidov on the sand bar at the southern end of the Salt Lagoon.

    If you’ve never seen a ribbon seal, it is not surprising because they rarely haul out on land. During summer and fall when the sea ice recedes northward out of the Bering Sea ribbon seals spend their time at sea. When the ice returns during winter and spring they haul out on broken ice floes to molt, breed and rear their pups. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) range map below shows that the Pribilofs are at the edge of the breeding distribution for the Bering Sea, while the Aleutians are at the southern margin of the known extent. However ribbon seals have been recorded in other parts of Alaska as far as Anchorage and Southeast Alaska. In January 2012 a wandering adult male was even seen multiple times in Puget Sound, WA. If you are lucky enough to see a ribbon seal you’ll probably know it right away because they are hard to miss. They have distinctive light-colored bands or “ribbons” around their neck, foreflipper, and hips that become more striking as they reach adulthood, especially in males.

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    The approximate geographic distribution of ribbon seals, based on documented observations and satellite telemetry (Image from Boveng et al. 2013).

    There are thought to be between 200,000 to 300,000 ribbon seals across their range, with an estimated 61,000 in the eastern and central Bering Sea. Ribbon seals are a species of concern among the Arctic ice seals, but are not currently listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In the Bering Sea, loss of sea ice for breeding, and reduced prey from effects of ocean acidification were considered the greatest future threats to ribbon seal habitat in the 2013 NMFS Status Review. Ribbon seals are hunted for subsistence in Siberia and Alaska and the current annual take by Alaska Natives is estimated to be less than 200 seals per year.

    So keep an eye out for ribbon seals and other observations of interest on the islands and please report them to the local Sentinels so we can record them in the Beringwatch database. And as you can see from the post and links, photos and video are great! If you are interested in trying out our new Beringwatch App for recording observations on your smartphone or iPad, let us know and we’ll get you set up.

     

    References

    Boveng, P. L., J. L. Bengtson, M. F. Cameron, S. P. Dahle, E. A. Logerwell, J. M. London, J. E. Overland, J. T. Sterling, D. E. Stevenson, B. L. Taylor, and H. L. Ziel. 2013. Status review of the ribbon seal. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFSAFSC-255, 174 p.